Zen in Cuba

Omar Pérez is an island unto himself.
Omar Perez in studio of Dennis Casteleiro in Central Havana
Photo: Kristin Dykstra

Of the many problems the poetry translator faces, context is one of the most troubling. Which is to say that if a translator is attempting to create a reading experience in the target language that is somehow analogous to the reading experience in the original language, then she must acknowledge what a native reader of this work might take for granted. In other words, when a translator chooses to bring a writer’s work into a new language, the translator must somehow grapple with the fact that she is, in most cases, bringing a poet who is widely known in one context into a context in which the poet is not known at all. Thus questions of how much or how little to reveal of the poet’s literary influences, her social and political surroundings, her critical reception, and even her personal life can be daunting. This is because the translator recognizes that at the moment of publication, any critical or contextual comments attached to the work will become “authoritative’ by virtue of the fact that very few people who speak the target language will know anything about this writer, who is now getting thrown into a weird, foreign marketplace. Such contextualizing is valuable for the same reason that it is dangerous: it often embeds the work with critical, cultural, or political stances that might not be obvious to a foreign reader. Without the translator’s critical commentaries, then, the trip through this foreign land might be hard to understand. But on the other hand, the didactic translator risks intruding too far into whatever relationship a reader might “naturally” strike up with the text.

In the case of translators who choose to bring Cuban writing into the United States, this discomfort is directly linked to the assumptions and confusions that have resulted from what poet and translator Mark Weiss, in the very fine introduction to his mammoth anthology The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry (University of California Press, 2009), refers to as the North American inclination to exoticize and mythologize Cuban culture and politics on both the right and the left. This phenomenon, of course, is conspicuously tied to the 50-year-old U.S. embargo on commerce and travel to Cuba, which was initially designed to isolate the island and destroy its dependent economy. For those interested in Cuban poetry, The Whole Island is the obvious place to start, as it traces some of the major lineages and movements of Cuban writing. Weiss is exceptionally good at explaining the historical importance of writers such as José Martí, José Lezama Lima, and Heberto Padilla, and from an editorial perspective, Weiss’s combination of contemporary writers still on the island and those who live in exile, such as José Kozer and Lorenzo Garcia Vega, opens up a particularly poignant way of thinking about the relationship between poetry and national identity.

The right and the left. What do these terms mean in Cuba, where the well-documented “leftist” successes of the revolution—in education and health care, for instance—exist alongside the well-documented “rightist” realities of censorship and imprisonment of writers, activists, and dissidents? As Weiss notes, between the late 1960s and early 1990s “Cuban poets needed government permission to have their work published, whether on or off the island, and until recently only the favored were allowed to travel abroad, as promoters of Cuba and their own work.” The collapse of the Cuban economy that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union struck a severe blow to institutions that published and promoted the island’s literary life. Writers who were accustomed to seeing their work in print were now hindered by, among other things, a lack of paper on the island, which led to small print runs and long waiting periods for publications. In short, the economic crisis dealt a blow to literary life; many writers, no longer able to make ends meet in Cuba, emigrated to other countries.

The translator of poetry from Cuba faces communication difficulties, a shortage of books and resources, and a context in which the most basic decisions and interactions are inevitably politicized and viewed through polarized ideological lenses. At the very least, the exoticized narrative of Cuba accompanies each small bit of Cuban writing that trickles in through the embargo. Thus the services the translator is providing here are multiple: in addition to bringing us into conversation with a country that is mostly forbidden to us, the translator exposes the many ways in which the dominant narratives that accompany our perceptions of Cuba fail to reflect the various realities on the island, including the reality that one can disagree with the endless reign of the Castro brothers and still not support Western-style capitalism, that one can disagree with both the Cuban government and the conservative, anti-Castro Republican Cubans in Miami. The exoticized view does not allow for the possibility that neither the left nor the right can really be understood as a monolith.

For the poet, then, one can imagine that this position that defies accepted norms and boundaries might inform her politics as well as her aesthetics.

Enter Omar Pérez.

* * *

You, functional space
variants in voltage, the only light
Transitory effect of Love
several different lights
Sustain them
you sustain them.

These seven lines are the entire text of “The metaphysical countrygirl,” a poem from Kristin Dykstra’s recently published translation of Omar Pérez’s Did You Hear about the Fighting Cat? (Shearsman Books, 2010). Pérez, who was born in 1964 in postrevolutionary Cuba, has a pretty fascinating biography. As discussed in a 2008 Jacket magazine essay by Kristin Dykstra, Pérez is the son of an iconic political figure, though he has been imprisoned for dissident speech; he has won major national awards for both essay and poetry collections, though his writing has been inconsistently received in Cuba. Additionally, he has been ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk, and in an interview with Kent Johnson he has stated that “the arrival of Zen Buddhism in Cuba . . . [is] as important as Martí’s birth or the 1959 revolution.”

While these biographical details may seem to provide an interpretive entryway into Pérez’s poetry, what I’d like to suggest is the opposite: that perhaps these biographical details distract us from truly grappling with his work, which, as we see in “The metaphysical countrygirl,” contains mysterious and unexplained movements and connections communicated through an alluring and awkward combination of repetitive sounds and silences. It’s at once lyrical (“variants in voltage”) and clunky (“functional space … transitory effect”), and I’d contend that this combination stretches the possibilities of poetry by questioning our expectations of how poetic and nonpoetic language operate together. “Metaphysical” is not an adjective that might normally appear in front of “countrygirl,” but in the fusion of these two entities we see not a clash of cultures but a defamiliarized melding together that seems confident in its assertion that philosophical inquiry and rural life are intricately connected. And who is this metaphysical countrygirl? Is the poem addressed to her? Is she a “functional space”? Or is she the speaker, and if so, then who is the “you” she’s addressing? We answer these questions with more questions.

A similar approach can be seen in the three lines that make up “Congregations”:

One fisherman alongside the other
one seagull alongside the other
seagulls over the fishermen.

The act of observation here is enough to “sustain” the poem. A reflection on the observation must follow. In other words, Pérez’s writing operates by withholding connections and allowing for what Harry Matthews calls “the experience of consciousness” to become “available through nothings—absences, negations, voids.” To read this poem, we must slow down enough to see that its subject is not the fishermen or the seagulls but rather the observance of their coexistence.

And the majority of the poems in Did You Hear about the Fighting Cat? are like this. They do not situate themselves in a particular time and do not articulate any narrowly definable stance toward the world. While they may draw attention to “countrygirls” and fishermen, certainly these are not protest poems for the proletariat. They purposefully defy easy classification, as illustrated through an anecdote Dykstra tells in the afterword about how she asked Pérez to explain the title of the book. His response: “Have you ever tried to make a cat fight when it didn’t want to?”

What I’d like to suggest is that Pérez’s poetry poses a particular context problem for the translator, the publisher, and the reader. In other words, we know so little about contemporary Cuban writing and see so few books of contemporary Cuban poetry, and for this reason we perhaps come to expect that a new translation might expand our understanding of what it is to live in Cuba. In this sense, then, Fighting Cat, whose poems are more Mallarmé–meets–William Bronk than Guillén or Martí, does not provide any satisfying sociological snapshots of life on the island. In another sense, though, if translation makes us a bit less provincial by allowing us access to conversations from other cultures that we might not normally have, then Fighting Cat is exemplary. Which is to say that the politicization of all things Cuban in the United States excludes from the exoticized narrative of left and right those voices and experiences that exist outside this paradigm. Take, for instance, these lines from Pérez’s poem “The progression”:

When one isn’t enough, you need two
when two aren’t enough, you need four
with four the progression begins, moving toward a number
that school teachers will call absurd.
Question: How many do you need
to put up a house?
Answer: You need absurd men.

. . .

And how many words do you need to transform them?
Absurd and absurd and absurd words
when silence isn’t enough.
This is what they call progression. . .

“The poet,” states Pérez, in an interview conducted in English with Kent Johnson (Pérez is a translator of English-language writers, including Shakespeare), is “an explorer of consciousness, so maybe he can heal himself from himself, from his belief that poetry is just a question of imagination and form and ego and social representation, etc. Poetry is a natural function, like god, or DNA, or rain.”

To heal oneself from oneself. It’s a lovely definition and guiding goal for poetry, and it’s helpful to view the above poem through this lens, for at the heart of “The progression,” which uses a Zen approach of answering a question with a non sequitur, is the notion that progress is itself an absurd concept that only absurd men subscribe to; I can hear the poet saying that we must heal ourselves from progress’s infinitely pointless lure.

Finally, if Pérez’s approach in Did You Hear about the Fighting Cat? seems not Cuban enough for an American audience, then it’s interesting to note that, as we learn from Dykstra’s afterword, it wasn’t deemed Cuban enough for a Cuban audience either; some readers found the work overly “foreign and incomprehensible.” Pérez’s earlier writing, particularly his book Something of the Sacred, translated by Dykstra and Roberto Tejada (Factory School, 2007) and considered a seminal work, includes poems that more explicitly respond to the political and historical realities of Cuba, as in these lines from “Contributions to a rudimentary concept of nation”:

On the volatile nights of a winter
nature corroborates with magnanimity
a Cuban is in training for amusement or amnesia,
so often and unfairly assumed as the same,
he brings candy to God, he cultivates the vernacular,
he fights off
cirrhosis with fruit poached in syrup, he conducts business;
thus research has shown that the Cuban is resourceful.

Other poems in Something of the Sacred take the form of an individual attempting to articulate compassion for the hopelessness of his contemporaries, and in a manner that is much more transparent than Fighting Cat:

With all my heart I feel for the man
who asks what you have to do in order to win

. . . .

I feel for the man
then I dedicate a tear of raw rice
to the man who asks what you have to do in order to win.

These lines, with a spiritual drive and anger reminiscent of Cesar Vallejo, are powerful for both their directness and their lyricism; they are starkly different, in both content and approach, to the Zen Buddhist puzzles in Fighting Cat:

Welcome to the church of the insane
Manolo, Ryokan, battle axe
or machete, Gauloises?, bien sûr!
Shoes by the doorway to the forest.

The doorway to this very contemporary forest has been kept open for us, then, by Dykstra and her lengthy commitment to the Cuban poetry scene, which she has been observing and translating over an extended time. Through her translations we are able to see the scene change, and in the case of Pérez we are able to see how one important individual within the scene is changing in his always fascinating attempts to “heal himself from himself.”

It’s nice to think that as we read and observe, we heal ourselves from ourselves along with him.

Originally Published: January 26th, 2011

Daniel Borzutzky is the author of Lake Michigan, finalist for the 2019 Griffin International Poetry Prize; The Performance of Becoming Human, which received the 2016 National Book Award. His other books include In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (2015); Memories of my Overdevelopment (2015); and The Book of Interfering Bodies (2011). His translation of Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia received the...

  1. January 28, 2011
     maryann siebert

    What is missing in this wonderful piece about the work of Omar Perez is the opportunity for the reader to see/hear the original work in Spanish.

  2. January 29, 2011
     Beth Fox

    This article opened a doorway for me, to learn about the 'zen of Cuba" writing, and all the unspoiled arts in Cuba. I am ready for more. Also helpful is the perspective of translation.

  3. January 29, 2011
     Beth Fox

    This article opened a doorway for me, to learn about the 'zen of Cuba" writing, and all the unspoiled arts in Cuba. I am ready for more. Also helpful is the perspective of translation.

  4. January 31, 2011

    Thank you so much for this article! In the U.S. we hear so little about literature from the island. Thank you for making this connection for us. And for pieces of the work.

  5. February 1, 2011
     omar pérez

    thanks a lot to you all. daniel´s piece is stimulating, i guess, not only for the poet in question. i must say to maryann siebert that bot poems collections discussed here are bilingual. and, a question to daniel:
    why do you use the feminine pronouns? it´s not in the least a criticism, just asking.